Book by: Julian Go
Timothy M. Gill,
In his excellent new treatise, Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory, Julian Go places sociology in dialogue with postcolonial theory and pursues an explicit aim of reconciling the two. This no easy feat; as Go points out, “social theory was born from and for empire, post-colonial thought was born against it” (p. 1). Yet, despite sociology’s imperial origins, Go argues that the solution is not to sideline the discipline—or social science more broadly, as some postcolonial scholars have suggested. Instead, he believes individuals can repurpose the sociological enterprise by taking inspiration from postcolonial thinkers and overcoming the epistemological, methodological, and onto-logical deficits that continue to distort the field. What is more, he argues that postcolonial thought remains premised upon a sociological minimalism and can, likewise, renew itself by more directly engaging with social theory.
Although sociology has largely become the progressive poster-child of academia, the discipline indeed possesses imperial origins. Not only was sociology birthed during an aggressively imperial moment within Europe and the United States (the mid-to-late 1800s), but many of the discipline’s progenitors championed imperial endeavors. Franklin Giddings, for instance, received the first full sociology professorship in the United States and served as president of the American Sociological Society. Giddings believed that sociology should, in part, concern itself with “rule over alien peoples.” Other prominent sociologists of the day maintained similarly imperial visions, including Charles Horton Cooley and Lester Ward.
Go first traces the lineage of postcolonial thought through two waves. Within the first wave, he discusses the work of individuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Aimé Césaire, who centralized the experience of empire and colonialism. These writers brought attention to the social psychology of colonialism and illustrated how the personal experience of colonialism impacted how colonial subjects understood themselves and their locations within colonial hierarchies. Karl Marx, of course, also discussed issues involving empire and colonialism. First-wave post-colonial thinkers, however, explicitly sought to illuminate the limitations of Marx—namely his emphasis on class—and, thereafter, build upon these limitations in order to, in Césaire’s words, “complete Marx.”
Go, thereafter, discusses second-wave postcolonial thinkers such as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak. Primarily, these intellectuals drew attention to the forms of discourse that colonial rulers and individuals within the Global North used to depict colonial subjects. Said’s Orientalism drew attention to how European intellectuals and rulers essentialized “the Orient” and depicted individuals within “the Orient” as barbarous savages; it became the most prominent work to develop within this period. When Said wrote Orientalism, anticolonial movements had largely succeeded in their struggles for inde-pendence; however the consequences of colonialism persisted—rampant inequality and enduring neo-imperial dynamics. What is more, the cultural frameworks (i.e., Orientalism) that developed during the colonial period continued to characterize thinking within the Global North as it concerned their counterparts in the Global South.
Following a discussion of the historical trajectory of postcolonial thought, Go en-courages readers to consider the development of a third wave of postcolonial thought that might repurpose sociology and rectify existing deficits. These problems include the bifurcation between “the West and the rest,” the repress-sion of colonial agency, and metrocentrism.
First, Go points out that “postcolonial thought…invites sociology to recognize first and foremost its embeddedness within the culture of empire” (p. 75). And indeed, he shows how this embeddedness continues “to contaminate” sociological pursuits. The result is research that often entirely neglects empire and colonialism, and continues to analytically bifurcate between “the West and the rest.” In his typology of modern societies, for example, Anthony Giddens failed to discuss colonial societies, and, within his work on nation-states, Charles Tilly failed to centralize empire-building within the contemporary world (pp. 87, 89-90). In addition, in their work on revolutions, Go argues that many historical sociologists neglected to examine revolutions in the Global South, such as the Haitian Revolution (p. 88). Instead, major sociological theorists, such as Theda Skocpol and William Sewell, Jr., centered their gaze on revolutions within Europe, like the French Revolution. Throughout all of these works, Go also asserts that sociologists have expressed an “us and them” bifurcation that fails to understand how dynamics within the Global North and Global South involve constitutive relations.
Second, Go argues that sociologists have repressed colonial agency, and thereby “yield a Eurocentric narrative that posits Europe as the sole originator and autonomous agent of history” (pp. 91-92). As one indication of this dynamic, he rightfully draws attention to how sociologists working within the world society/world culture framework often purport that norms and values develop within the Global North and subsequently diffuse throughout the world. Third, and finally, Go draws attention to how sociologists routinely utilize concepts and theories derived in the Global North to understand dynamics within the Global South, without considering how individuals within the Global South might understand their own lives (p. 94). For example, some sociologists have historically set out to work with Marxist concepts such as false consciousness and alienation to understand labor dynamics in the Global South. In doing so, they seemingly have not recognized that Marx developed his concepts to make sense of the white working class experience in Western Europe during the 19th century, and that we might require new concepts to make sense of dynamics beyond such times and places.
Go ultimately argues that a third wave of postcolonial thought must aim to rectify these issues, and, to do so, he proposes several strategies.
First, taking inspiration from Said, Go proposes that sociologists track “the processes and relations between diverse but connected spaces in the making and remaking of modernity” and that we engage in “sustained examinations of mutual connection across time and space.” In addition, Go encourages sociologists to partake in relational analyses—that is, analyses that insist “that connections and interactions between units are constitutive,” and that possibilities for change always exist. As Go demonstrates, relationalism rejects the idea that essences exist that determine particular outcomes (pp. 118-23); and, to illustrate his point, he engages in two analyses—one involving Haiti and the French Revolution, and another involving the English Industrial Revolution. In doing so, Go shows how events are always contingent upon a host of dynamics. In his discussion of the French Revolution, for instance, Go utilizes Bourdieusian field theory to show how the Haitian Revolution influenced French revolutionary thought on the concept of liberty (pp. 123-31). In addition, he points out how many French revolutionaries and National Assembly members accrued wealth directly from the slave trade and colonial relations. We must not, therefore, understand the French Revolution in a domestic vacuum.
In the final substantive chapter, Go argues that sociologists should additionally take inspiration from standpoint theory in order to move beyond metrocentric thought—that is, “the practice of false universalism: taking a specific parochial or particular experience and assuming it is universal” (p. 144). Instead, sociologists should recognize that, although “knowledge is perspectival” and socially situated, it can still be objective (p. 157). Go then suggests that instead of beginning with concepts and theories derived from the Global North, sociologists should start “with the concerns and experiences, categories and discourses, perceptions and problems of those groups visited by imperial and neoimperial imposition. Start from their perspectives, perceptions, and practices, and from there reconstruct social worlds” (p. 173). In doing so, he argues that sociologists can arrive at new understandings of action, develop new concepts and theories, and develop new concerns. Sociologists can, of course, attempt to utilize concepts and theories developed in one locale to attempt to make sense of dynamics in another, but it remains an open and empirical question concerning how far those concepts and theories will eventually travel.
In the end, Go asserts that “postcolonial social theory can be seen more broadly as a perspective or a worldview … [rather than] a ‘theory’ in the sense of a set of ordered hypotheses about the social world” (p. 197). And, throughout his important work, Go neatly shows how postcolonial thought and social theory might invigorate each other by proper engagement with one another.
This work is undeniably significant and should be read not only by scholars of social theory, but also sociologists intent on conducting research within the Global South or on imper-ialism more broadly. By the conclusion of the text, though, some concerns remain. Go rightfully draws attention to a number of theories and areas of the discipline that quite clearly suffer from “the imperial gaze,” in-cluding world society/world culture theory and much mid-to-late twentieth-century work on revolutions, which largely ignore the Global South. In the end, though, we are left with a sense that there is very little existing work that focuses on dynamics within the Global South broadly speaking, little to no work that central-izes empire, and little to no work that begins with the experiences and perspectives of actors within the Global South. And, although there is a moderately sized literature concerning how postcolonial thought might inform the social sciences, as well as how imperialism has conditioned the origins of social thought, the question still remains: where is sociology now?
I agree that U.S. sociologists remain largely focused on dynamics within the United States. Some recognition by Go, however, of existing sociological and social scientific work involving the Global South, colonialism, and empire could help social scientists actually see how some individuals have already moved in the direction that Go would prefer.
Indeed, many of the recommendations that Go proposes seem well-suited for some compar-ative-historical as well as some qualitative sociological pursuits. And in fact a number of recent works using these methods have centralized issues of imperialism, colonialism, and empire, alongside experiences within the Global South: John Foran’s Taking Power: On the Origins of Third World Revolutions, Sarah Babb’s Managing Mexico: Economists from Nationalism to Neoliberalism, George Steinmetz’s The Devil’s Handwriting: Pre-coloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa, and Jeffrey M. Paige’s Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America. A number of recent works have also centralized local meaning-making and interactionist processes within the Global South: Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Jeffrey T. Jackson’s The Globalizers: Development Workers in Action, Javier Auyero’s Contentious Lives: Two Argentine Women, Two Protests, and the Quest for Recognition, and Jocelyn Viterna’s Women in War: The Micro-processes of Mobilization in El Salvador. A chapter that engaged with recent works that embody at least some of what Go has called for would have nicely tied the text together and provided readers with even more optimism about the sociological discipline and its future prospects.
Although Go offers well-warranted critiques of much existing scholarship, though, it is not entirely clear how post-colonial thought might inform quantitative studies that involve large data-sets culled from across the world. Are these endeavors inevitably flawed due to their systematized approach involving surveys? One idea is that perhaps, along the lines of postcolonial critiques, quantitative social scientists could more readily work with individuals from the Global South to construct precise survey instruments that take local meaning into consideration. It remains unclear, however, whether meanings concerning race, gender, labor, and religion, for example, are so diverse that surveys could not reliably capture all of this variation.
Finally, we are left to consider how postcolonial thought might inform sociological pursuits that primarily involve domestic dynamics within, for example, the United States. Is there room for postcolonial influence upon these more circumscribed pursuits within the Global North, and what would such an approach look like? Several sociologists, including Gary Alan Fine, have drawn attention to the “sociology of the local,” and a number of ethnographies exist on an array of subcultural groups within the United States. Is this the sort of work that postcolonial thinkers would call for?
In addition, we are left to consider what postcolonial thought might make of quantitative work that examines social dynamics within nation-states wherein socialization processes are heavily varied. Indeed, some transnationally-oriented sociologists such as Leslie Sklair and William Robinson assert that U.S. elites, for example, have much more in common with elites in other countries than they do with working class members within their own communities. What then would make quantitative work between individuals of an arbitrarily demarcated space any more justifiable, if at all, than cross-national quantitative work involving elites or working-class members? Theorists interested in trans-national practices might surely consider these questions.
In the end, we certainly cannot expect one text to answer all questions concerning the relationship between postcolonialism and sociology. It is all the more commendable that Go has opened this discussion—drawing attention to sociology’s imperial history and urging us to consider how our own work might remain connected to this regrettable past.